The Trinity from Tannirpalli

The three names which have achieved celebrity in the Christian world, in India as well as abroad, are those of Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux and Bede Griffiths. All of them are associated with the Saccidananda Ashram at Tannirpalli in the Tiruchirapalli district of Tamil Nadu. The first two came from France and the third belongs to England. All three have become known as Indian sages. Bede Griffiths is being hailed as a brahmavid, a claim advanced rarely even by ancient Hindu rishis. A brief survey of the sayings and doings of this trinity will help in determining the truth about their drumbeating.

Jules Monchanin

He was born in France in 1895 and ordained a priest in the Catholic Church in 1922. "He knew and deeply loved El Islam" and "visited North Africa, Algeria and Morocco" where a Christian monastery "in a suburb of Rabat, was trying to realize, in an integral contemplative life, the blossoming of Islam in Christianity".1 It is not recorded when and why he lost his love of El Islam. What we are told suddenly is that "beyond all else, it was India that drew him". Perhaps he found the Muslim countries too hostile to his work. Being in the same business, Muslim missionaries have always been more than a match for their Christian counterparts. So his imagination was fired when he came to know of how "Francis Xavier was called to gather to Christ the India of the Portuguese in the XVIth century, and de Nobili, a hundred years later, the India of the Tamils".2

He prepared himself for India "by a more thorough study of Sanskrit, of the scriptures of Hindustan and her systems of philosophy" and "when he was authorised by his Archbishop he entered the Society of Auxiliaries to the Missions". He waited for an assignment in India till "he met an Indian Jesuit of the Madura Mission" who put him in touch with the Bishop of Trichinopoly.3 The Bishop invited him to India where he reached in 1939. He was appointed an assistant priest in the parish of Panneipatti.

In a letter written from Panneipatti on March 3,1940, he proclaimed: "I have come to India for no other purpose than to awaken in a few souls the desire (the passion) to raise up a Christian India... I think the problem is of the same magnitude as the Christianisation, in former times, of Greece... It will take centuries, sacrificed lives, and we shall perhaps die before seeing any realizations."4 He flew on the wings of his own fancy and continued: "A Christian India, completely Indian and completely Christian, may be and will be something so wonderful. To prepare it from afar, the sacrifice of our lives is not too much to

P.A. Antony, the Christian tahsildar of Kulittalai in Monchanin's parish, was impressed by him. He thought of establishing Monchanin at Kulitallai where "Brahmins, Vellalars, Naidus, Chettiars, all Hindus of good caste form the greatest part of the population". Monchanin's knowledge of Sanskrit, familiarity with Indian philosophers, Hindu mystic poets and chaste Tamil "combined to assure him rare possibilities of contact and influence". The tahsildar discussed the plan with Monchanin and then proposed it to the Bishop. "The parish of Penneipatti was divided, and the northern part skirting the Kavery, with a central residence at Kulittalai, was put in charge of Father Monchanin."6

A presbytery was planned for Monchanin near the existing church at Kulitallai. He thought of calling it an ashram and wrote to a friend in September, 1940 that "I shall write for you some short notes about our ashram, an heralding image of the whole of India wholly transfigured into the Dead and Risen Christ and the Spirit he sent".7 And again in April, 1941: "The tahsildar is going to begin the work of the ashram building (Bhakti Ashram, in Kulittalai). Two months (or three) will be enough. I hope to be installed there for the parochial feast, St. Christine, 24th July." Monchanin had coined a Hindu name for his contrivance. But doubts assailed him. "I feel both hope and anxiety," he confessed, "when I think of Kulittalai. I am wanting in so many things to be a witness of the Risen One amidst Hindus."8

He did not feel at ease even after he started living in the Bhakti Ashram. "I am a strict vegetarian and I sleep on a mat. But am I truly Indian? that is the question which torments me."9 He was dreaming of "the definitive ashram" where "reclad in the ochre cloth of the Hindu sannyasi" he could live "in the manner in which Upadhaya Brahmabandhav, the great Bengali Christian, had presented the ideal to the Indian Church some fifty year before".10

He, however, did not live in the Bhakti Ashram except at brief intervals. He went out again and again, visiting places and meeting people. He delivered lectures on Hinduism. "A few days before the independence of India Father Monchanin was staying in Tiruchi" when "the Bishop gave him a letter to translate which he had received from France". The letter was from another French missionary, Henri Le Saux, seeking permission "to settle somewhere in the Tiruchi area and to lead there, in some hermitage, the contemplative life in the pristine traditions of Christian monasticism and the closest conformity to the traditions of Indian sannyasa".11 The permission was given and Henri Le Saux reached India in 1948. We have already seen how the two joined together in setting up the Saccidanand Ashram at Tannirpalli.

In 1951, Monchanin contributed a section to An Indian Benedictine Ashram which he had authored jointly with Henri Le Saux. The future that he saw for India can be summarised, in his own words, as follows: The spiritual society essentially set apart for the said end is Holy Church, the Bride and the real Mystical Body of the Risen Christ. Christ expects from every land and people an outburst of praise and love, which they alone can offer him. India cannot be alien to this process of assimilation by Christianity and transformation into it. She was for centuries the foremost intellectual and spiritual leader of her neighbouring countries, and even of the Far East. Is not India to Asia what Greece was to Europe? Therefore the christianisation of Indian civilisation is to all intents and purposes an historical undertaking comparable to the christianisation of Greece. Besides, India has received from the Almighty an uncommon gift, an unquenchable thirst for what is spiritual. We may rightly think that such a marvellous seed was not planted in vain by God in the Indian soul. Unfortunately, Indian wisdom is tainted with erroneous tendencies, and looks as if it has not yet found its own equilibrium. So was Greek wisdom before Greece humbly received the Paschal message of the Risen Christ. India has to receive humbly from the Church the sound and basic principles of true contemplation, to keep them faithfully, to stamp them with her own seal, and to develop through them along with the other members of the Church. Should India fail in that task, we cannot understand, humanly speaking, how the Mystical Body of Christ could reach its quantitative and qualitative fullness in his eschatological Advent.12 The trickster was certainly capable of coining some tall talk in terms of that deceitful jargon which Christian theology has hammered out during its long career.

Next year, he wrote another article, The Christian Approach to Hinduism, in which he listed four obstacles which Christianity was facing in India: 1) the hold of Hinduism due to a) the strength of inherited traditions, and b) national pride in their philosophical and spiritual lore; 2) the lack of attraction of Christianity because a) Christianity is scarcely known, and b) owing to the foreign outlook of Christianity, Hindus are, in general, very little attracted to it; 3) the peculiar turn of mind of most Hindus in a) Logic, and b) Metaphysics and Psychology; and 4) the common belief in the equality of all religions. He concluded that "Too often the dialogue between Christian and Hindu is a colloquy between deaf men".13

He was all for a meeting (or dialogue as they call it these days) between Hinduism and Christianity so that Hinduism could be purged of its errors and perfected into Christianity. "It is the creation," he wrote in a letter in January 1955, "which has to be rethought or rather situated anew in the light of the revealed Christian mystery. In that mystery, Hinduism (and especially Advaita) must die to rise up again Christian. Any theory which does not take fully into account this necessity constitutes a lack of loyalty both to Christianity-which we cannot mutilate from its essence-and to Hinduism-from which we cannot hide its fundamental errors and its essential divergence from Christianity. Hinduism must renounce its equation 'atman-brahman' to enter in Christ."14 In simple language, Hindus were to be asked to renounce their rishis and run after a ruse.

He was, however, not able to achieve any noticeable advance towards this momentous meeting between Hinduism and Christianity before he died in 1957. Missionaries who promote the myth of their great sacrifices believe, and would like us to believe, that he died because the hard life-eating vegetarian food and sleeping and sitting on the floor-he had imposed upon himself in the service of the mission, told seriously on his health. They are pretty good at manufacturing martyrs.

Henri Le Saux

He was born at St. Briac, a small town on the north coast of Brittany in France and became a monk in the Benedictine monastery, Abbe of Sainte Anne de Kerogonan. He came to India in 1948 on invitation from Jules Monchanin. During 1949, he paid two visits to the Ramana Ashram at Tiruvannamalai before preparing a plan for a Catholic ashram. The plan was cleared by the Bishop of Tiruchirapalli and the ashram was formed in 1950. It was given a Latin name, Eremus Sanctissime Trinitatis (Hermitage of the Most Holy Trinity). But to Hindus it was made known as Saccidananda Ashram, Saccidananda of the Upanishads being presented as an equivalent of the Christian Trinity. Both the founders had adopted Hindu names. But Henri Le Saux alone succeeded in getting known as Swami Abhishiktananda.

He shared in full Monchanin's fond hope that India could be annexed to the Catholic Church by dressing up Christian dogmas in the language of Hindu philosophy. Only his language was more sophisticated or, in other words, less straight-forward than that of his elder colleague. The goal was "the Christianisation and assuming into the Pleroma of the Risen Lord that unrivalled thirst for the Absolute which threw and still throws out to the world, in quest of 'salvation', crowds of elect in the Hindu as well as in the Buddhist and Jain people".15 Hindus, Buddhists and Jains could constitute only "crowds" for him. Christians alone were a community.

He paid several more visits to the Ramana Ashram in 1952-53 and picked up the Hindu mystic term," guhâ (cave of the heart)". It was in this mystic corner that her tried, for the rest of his life, to stage a meeting between what he called the "advaitic experience" and what was known to him as the "Christian experience". He went out on a tour of Northern India in March 1957 in search of some place where he could carry out his own experiment in the "cave of the heart". But his trip was cut short by Monchanin's illness. He had to rush back. After Monchanin's death, he lived in the Saccidanand Ashram for some more years. He had planned to divide his time between the South and the North. But the pull of the North, particularly of the Himalayas, proved stronger. He built a place for himself at Uttarkashi in Garhwal and left the South for good in 1968. By now he had written several books and was being hailed by the Catholic as well as many non-Catholic Christians as a profound theologian and a mystic luminary. He was in great demand in all sorts of seminars and conferences on the latest mission strategy of holding a dialogue with Hinduism. So he could stay at Uttarkashi only for short periods. He suffered a heart attack and died in 1973. He also, we are told, had ruined his health by leading a hard life.

During his life, he was out "to show to our Hindu brethren that the Christian experience does not fall short of the Vedanta, but that, without in any way threatening the essential value of the Hindu experience, it reveals within it even greater depths of the unfathomable mystery of God".16 But in the plethora of his works, he never explained what he meant by the "Christian experience". The only thing that does become clear, as one plods through the pages, is that he never arrived anywhere near the "Hindu experience" which he often described as the "advaitic experience". In fact, it is highly doubtful whether, with all his study of the Upanishads, he ever understood what Advaita really means. His obstinate obsession with Jesus and the Church prevented him from breaking the barrier. He was rather fond of the phrase "cave of the heart", but he was not prepared to see there anything except Jesus hanging on a gibbet. He remained chained to the Church to the end of his days. He never learnt the elementary truth that Advaita must remain a mere word for those who refuse to rise above their mental fixations.

"A sinful refusal of Christ," he wrote towards the end of his life,"-like that of Lucifer or the religious leaders who, according to St. John knew truth but refused to submit to it-is inconceivable except in the case of a man who is still 'on the way'. He might then refuse the Lord in the name of an Advaita of his own conceiving, one which only glorified his own ego and puffed him up with pride. Or it might happen in the case of one who was a jnani or yogi in appearance. In such an individual, far from his empirical self vanishing in the supreme self, what has happened is that the ego of his phenomenal consciousness has taken to itself the supreme and absolute character of the 'I' of the real self. In fact, he has magnified himself after the fashion of the devas in the Kena Upanishad-a temptation which many unfortunately fail to resist."17 Here Hindus are asked to take lessons in Advaita from a man whose sole occupation in life was torturing Upanishadic texts into the dogmatic framework of a gross monolatry. It is difficult for a Christian missionary to renounce the role of a teacher even on subjects about which he knows next to nothing.

In the case of Henri Le Saux there was an added difficulty: he was a poet. The flow of mellifluous phrases, particularly in his native French, was mistaken by him for mystic experience. One has to read his writings in order to see how he became a victim of his own word-imageries and figures of speech. Silencing of the mind, which is a sine qua non for spiritual experience according to all Hindu scriptures on the subject, remained a discipline which he never learnt. Small wonder that the man ended as a neurotic.

Bede Griffiths

Born in 1910 in an Anglican family, he became a Catholic in 1931 and was ordained a priest in 1940. He lived as monk in Prinknash Abbey and become Prior of Farnborough Abbey in England. He came to India as a missionary in 1955 and lived for two years in Bangalore before he joined Francis Mahieu to found the Kurisumala Ashram, a monastery of the Syrian rite in Kerala. In 1968 he took over the Saccidanand Ashram after Henri Le Saux left it for good. He was operating from there till his death in May, 1993.

Bede Griffiths wrote several books between 1954 and 1983 - The Golden String (1954), Return to the Centre (1978), The Marriage of East and West (1982), Christ in India (1966), The Cosmic Revelation, Vedanta and Christian Faith (1973). Another major book, The Bhagvad Gita: A Christian Reading, is expected to be published soon. But the clearest and most comprehensive statement of what he is trying to achieve is contained in his Christ in India: Essays Towards a Hindu-Christian Dialogue. This book was first published in England in 1966 under the title Christian Ashram, and a simultaneous edition in the USA gave it the name by which it is now known. A Christian publishing house in India has reprinted it in 1984. In 'A New Introduction' which the author has added to the Indian reprint, he say that "I have come, therefore, to see that the Indian Church, in the words of the founder of our ashram, Jules Monchanin, has to be neither Latin or Greek or Syrian but totally Indian and totally Christian".18

This book was published soon after the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church had revised its view of non-Christian religions in a declaration made on October 28, 1965. Till that date the Catholic Church had held that all other religions were false and inspired by the Devil. Now the Church started saying that it "rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions" and that it "has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men". This by itself looked like a big concession. But in the next sentence the Council restored the supremacy of Christ in whom "men find the fullness of the religious life".19 This pronouncement from Rome endorsed the Theology of Fulfillment which some Christian theologians in India and elsewhere had been propounding at intervals but which the Church had not recognised or recommended so far.

The "natural light" which Christian theologians, from Ziegenbalg onwards, had discovered in Hinduism is an old theme in Christian theology. Heathens, we are told, have had the benefit of a Cosmic Revelation which preceded the Mosaic and the Christian Revelations. Bede Griffiths has published a whole book by this name in 1983. The derogatory terms-heathen, pagan, infidel and the rest-which were used to describe a Hindu in earlier days have been dropped. He is to be called a Cosmic Man henceforward. Many Hindus who are not conversant with linguistic trickeries of Christian theology feel flattered. Bede Griffiths takes full advantage of this Hindu ignorance. He flatters the Hindus further by writing long passages in praise of their spiritual and philosophical heritage. But his central point is the same as announced by the Church, namely that Hinduism can find fulfilment only by surrendering itself, body and soul, to the Catholic Church. That, in brief, is the burden of all his books.

Before Bede Griffiths draws the inevitable conclusion, he makes two fanatical and fantastic assertions. The first assertion is that Jesus was, is and will remain the only manifestation of God in history. "What we can say with certainty", he writes, "is that at all times and in all places God (and that means Christ) is soliciting the heart and mind of every man through his reason and conscience, and all alike, believers and unbelievers, are to be judged by this hidden call and their response to it."20 Again: "The resurrection of Christ is at once a historical fact, which has changed the course of history, and also a symbol of that ultimate truth in which human life and history can alone find their true meaning."21 The second assertion is that the Church is the body and bride of Christ destined to embrace the whole world. "But we must add," he says, "that if Christ is present to all men, then the Church is also present in all mankind. There is one movement of the Church which is visible in history, which we can trace in its progress from Jerusalem over the Graeco-Roman world, then over Europe and America and now about to enter into vital contact with Asia and Africa. But there is also a hidden movement of the Church going on in the hearts of men drawing men to Christ without their knowing it, in Hinduism, in Buddhism, in Islam, even in agnosticism and unbelief. It is only at the last day that the full significance of this movement will be revealed, but even now we can discern something of this hidden path of grace in the other religions of the world."22

The conclusion he draws from his assertions is quite safe. Bede Griffiths is convinced that "a meeting must take place between the different religions of the world".23 But he lays down a condition. "For a Christian," he says, "the meeting of religions can only take place in Christ."24 Monchanin and Henri Le Saux had founded the Saccidananda Ashram in order "to lead India to the fulfilment of its quest for the experience of God by showing that it could be found in Christ".25 Now it is the turn of Bede Griffiths "to show how Christ is, as it were, 'hidden' at the heart of Hinduism"26, and how "Rama, Krishna, Siva, and the Buddha, all the mysteries and sacraments in Buddhism and Hinduism, are types and shadows of the mystery of Christ".27 Christ "is the fulfilment of all that the imagination of the Indian soul sought to find in its gods and heroes, in its temples and sacrifices".28 Christ is the 'goal which Vedanta has been seeking".29 The time has come when "Hinduism itself will be seen as a Preparatio evangelica, the path by which the people of India have been led through the centuries of their history to their fulfilment in Christ and his Church".30 Quod erat demonstrandum !

A normal human mind is insulted when it is called upon to comment on these pompous pronouncements. Proclaiming that Hinduism will find fulfilment in Christianity, observes an amused reader of Bede Griffiths, is tantamount to saying that the holy Ganga will get purified by being poured into a puddle of hogwash. The puerile nonsense could have been dismissed with contempt but for the backing it has from a formidable apparatus which the mission has built in this country since the days of the Portuguese pirates. We have seen how the myth of "comrade" Stalin was sold for years on end by a well-oiled party machine. The Christian mission is much older and far more experienced. It will go on selling the myth of a "christ" Jesus till its apparatus is dispersed. That process of dispersal has already gone a long way in the West and the Church is now in a hurry to find a new hideout in the East. Will the East give shelter to this array of the most abominable superstitions which run roughshod over its own and superior spiritual tradition?

Incidentally, the trinity from Tannirpalli also consists of white men. The mission is not yet confident that the coloured people can lead the Ashram Movement, howsoever devoted they may be to the Christian dogmas.



1 Swami Parama Arubi Anandam: A Memorial, pp. 5-6

2 Ibid., p. 7

3 Ibid., p. 9

4 Ibid., p. 202

5 Ibid., P. 203

6 Ibid., p. 14

7 Ibid., p. 205

8 Ibid., P. 207

9 Ibid., p. 208

10 Ibid., p. 14

11 Ibid., P. 16

12 Ibid., p. 159-170

13 Ibid., P. 171-176

14 Ibid., p. 222. His prescription has been discussed in some depth by Ram Swarup in his 'Liberal' Christianity, included in Hinduism vis-a-vis Christianity and Islam, a Voice of India publication.

15 A Benedictine Ashram, p. 3

16 Hindu-Christian Meeting Point, Delhi, 1976., p. 9

17 Ibid., p. 99

18 Christ in India, Bangalore, 1984, p. 8. This statement does not square with the one he made to Swami Devananda in his letter of August 31, 1987: "Of course, if I held the same view as Father Monchanin you would be justified in suspacting me of deception."

19 Vatican Council II: Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, Bombay, 1983, p. 668

20 Christ in India, "(and that means Christ)" are Fr. Bede's words and not an insertion, p. 196

21 Ibid., p. 111

22 Ibid., p. 177

23 Ibid., pp. 14-15

24 Ibid., p. 16

25 Ibid., p. 63

26 Ibid., P. 91

27 Ibid., p. 100

28 Ibid., P. 111

29 Ibid., p. 170

30 Ibid., p. 174


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